On a dismal election night for Labour, the London constituency of Ilford North was a surprising gain from the Conservatives.
Wes Streeting, who was president of the National Union of Students between 2008 and 2010, overturned a 5,404 majority to win a seat that was way down at 84th on Labour’s list of target seats (the party failed to win North Warwickshire, which was number one on the list).
So what was different about Ilford North?
Mr Streeting told Times Higher Education that there had been “lots of voters who are historically Labour moving into the constituency from other parts of East London”.
But he also highlighted “a ground campaign…unprecedented in this part of London”, which meant that by polling day his team had “spoken to more voters than any other Constituency Labour Party in the country” and were “relentlessly focused on those undecided voters”.
Mr Streeting, who had Lord Mandelson campaigning for him on polling day, continued: “One of the things we did locally, which I think the Labour Party didn’t do nationally, was we really captured the spirit of ambition and the aspirations of those voting.”
Triumph over the Tories
Mr Streeting described his personal background as a factor: “Like many of those people, I grew up on a council estate – in Tower Hamlets.”
The University of Cambridge graduate, who was chief executive of educational charity the Helena Kennedy Foundation and head of education at Stonewall after leaving the NUS, added that he “worked hard, went to state school, went to a top university and spent my career trying to give something back to people through education. I think a lot of people identified with that story.”
Caught on camera
Lee Scott, the former Ilford North MP ousted at the election, was one of those MPs who signed the NUS pledge ahead of the 2010 election, initiated by Mr Streeting in his time as president, to vote against any rise in fees. Mr Scott broke it by abstaining in the vote on £9,000 fees. Happily for Mr Streeting, there is a photo of him as NUS president with Mr Scott and the signed pledge. Mr Streeting said that voters “knew very clearly what the pledge was; the photo helped”.
He plans to be active on education as an MP. The Tories have “explicitly failed to rule out a rise in tuition fees”, he said, adding that “if there’s any attempt to raise tuition fees I intend to get stuck into that debate”.
Mr Streeting – who has served as a councillor on Redbridge Council – argued that “before the general election the mood of vice-chancellors was once again, as usual, prior to an election, calling for higher fees and more money”.
He added: “What they haven’t yet done, I think, is demonstrate where the money [from £9,000 fees has] gone already – so I’ll be asking some questions about that over the course of the next five years.”
On funding, Mr Streeting said that he believed that university leaders and students would “welcome an end to the perennial debates about what level the tuition fee is set [at]”.
He continued: “I’ve always been in favour of a graduate tax. I also accept it comes with challenges.” But he argued that Labour’s spell in opposition offers “an opportunity to think about that more deeply”.